“Before this film was offered to me,” says Omar Sharif on the commentary track for Monsieur Ibrahim, “I hadn’t worked for five years, because I wasn’t being offered any interesting material. And then out of the blue, one day, this script was sent to me.” This from the man who acted in some of the grandest films of the last century — Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, Funny Girl. Thank goodness that François Dupeyron thought to send him his screenplay, or Sharif might be most immediately remembered today for his prototypically “Arab” role in Hidalgo.
Later, he observes, “It’s very difficult for me to find parts at my age, because I have this very peculiar accent which is neither French nor English nor Italian. I’m sort of a foreigner, I have to play foreigners. Now as I get old, it would be difficult to play anything but, I suppose old Arabs.” Instead, he appears here as the title character, astute, curious, and especially, generous toward his young neighbor, Moses (Pierre Boulanger). Sharif remembers his costar fondly: “It’s very difficult to find a child who’s 13, 14, or who’s interesting and who you don’t actually hate, you know… And this boy has a natural charm and extraordinary talent. He understood everything right away.”
Sharif recalls that they worked on improvisation as he watches Boulanger’s first scene: the boy is gazing out his window on the Place Pigalle in Paris, looking distracted and uncertain. While Timmy Thomas’ “Everybody Wants to Live Together” fills the soundtrack (the time is mid-1960s), Moses plans his first foray into sex, a date with one of the hookers who work Rue Bleue (“How much for a quickie?”, he practices, posing with his fedora in front of the mirror). At the same time, he remains a child, utterly unable to resist his urge to toss a glass of water on his red-haired neighbor, Myriam (Lola Naynmark), practicing the latest dance steps in the alleyway between their homes.
In this first sequence in Monsieur Ibrahim, Moses appears a typical teenaged boy, trying out his masculine prerogative and simultaneously unsure of what he wants. Adapted from Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s novel (also a play) by Dupeyron and shrewdly shot (primarily with handheld camera) by Rémy Chevrin, the film delicately evokes the perplexities of male adolescence. Drawn especially to the stunning Fatou (Mata Gabin), a black prostitute who wears a blond wig and green summer dress, Moses approaches her; recognizing him as the boy who lives “over there,” she turns him down, not believing his assertion that he’s 16.
At the same time, Moses is feeling more and more frustrated at home. His father (Gilbert Melki) is increasingly depressed and distant, insisting that the curtains remain closed because sunlight damages his book bindings (his library shelves are crammed full). Each evening he arrives home, clicks off his son’s rock music, chain-smokes, and downs laxatives (his failing bodily functions reflecting his emotional state), occasionally comparing Moses to a long gone older brother. (Sharif notes helpfully that the father’s constipation “is what he is, he’s also mentally constipated, it’s a sort of symbolic thing about him.”) According to the father, Paulie was bookish and deferential (“Your brother never put down the dictionary”), whereas Moses, jangling with repressed energy, very much in the present, seems rebellious. Exasperated as he prepares dinner, Moses retorts, “He never did the shopping.”
With his father more and more withdrawn and ineffectual, Moses must look after household chores. Repeatedly sent across to the street to “the Arab’s” to buy toilet paper and foodstuffs, he finds another outlet for resistance: he steals cans of food from the shop, thinking that the proprietor, Monsieur Ibrahim, doesn’t notice. The Jewish Moses is initially inclined to dismiss the grocer as an “Arab” (taking the term for convenience store literally, or, as Ibrahim puts it, “Arab means open from 8am to midnight,” and as Sharif puts it on the commentary track, “It’s the Jewish area… I suppose it’s called the shmate business”). But the old man corrects him: he’s a Sufi from the Golden Crescent.
Ibrahim — the sage, charismatic, and plainly desired father figure in this sentimental tale — sees other details of Moses’ daily existence. “I tried to be a little bit severe at the beginning, to make the affection grow between us,” observes Sharif as he watches their meeting. “The difficulty of this part is, I only exist really, when this boy walks into my grocery store, and we have a series of scenes where I seem to say very wise things, and professorial. And I didn’t want it to sound wise or professorial, so I tried to make him a little funny, make him like a child waiting for another child to play with.”
At this point in the film, Moses is on the sidewalk with one of the prostitutes (he is eventually serviced by Sylvie [Anne Suarez], who observes of his penis, “It hasn’t been around much”; during the sex scene, Sharif comments, “It’s difficult to imagine that this is his first appearance ever in a film; he looks so poised and so professional!”). Ibrahim, for his part, begins to offer other sorts of education, including suggestions for feeding his grumpy and now jobless father on the cheap, with diluted Beaujolais and cat food passing for pâté. He also takes the boy on walks in the park and starts offering life advice that runs counter to that of Moses’ father (who encouraged him to save his coins in a piggy bank, to become “rich”). Ibrahim, by contrast, encourages him to smile and ask questions rather than relying on books for answers. “What you give is yours forever,” says Ibrahim, “What you keep is lost forever.”
Such aphoristic instruction suits Moses well for the moment; when the old man renames him “Momo,” the boy is glad for a new identity, taking it now as short for “Muhammed.” Absorbing from his new friend as much “knowledge” as possible, Momo begins reading the Koran (though, as he admits, he doesn’t understand most of it), even as he decides to start “dating” his neighbor Myriam. Together, the kids observe a movie shoot on their street one day, featuring a vavoomy blond (Isabelle Adjani, playing Brigitte Bardot in a Godrard film, but credited here as “The Star,” and still as dazzlingly youthful as she has been for the past 20 years — watching himself gaze on her walking away, Sharif chuckles, “Still some life in the old guy”).
The kids go on to spend some romance movie-ish moments of their own, holding hands and kissing by the river. She teaches him to dance, he buys her a 45 record, and then she betrays him in a way that recalls his abandonment by his mother (Isabelle Renauld, whose brief appearance only underlines Momo’s — and the film’s — image of the terrible mom). Taking Momo’s point of view, Monsieur Ibrahim portrays women as ranging between two limited “types.” While he is enchanted by the gentle, but by-definition detached, working girls (a category that might include The Star as well), he is repeatedly disappointed by the self-centered everyday sorts who appear to reject poor Momo out of hand.
As he is also unwanted by his father, Momo is understandably relieved by the attentions paid him by the bighearted Ibrahim. Together, they purchase a red sports car (under Bobby Hebb’s “Sonny”: “Sunny, thank you for the sunshine bouquet. / Sunny, thank you for the love you brought my way”), then travel to Turkey, where Ibrahim imparts more life lessons, including an appreciation of the joy and sensual logic of dancing (this demonstrated by a trip to a temple, where they observe a group of whirling dervishes). Theirs is a love story, delicate and haunting so far as it goes. However, by film’s end, the script seems out of ideas, resorting to the tritest of resolutions. Given its general dependence on stereotypes and clichés — the golden-hearted hookers, the flinty Jewish father — the finale is not surprising, but it is disappointing.